Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba
to appear on CMA's Viva! & Gala series
By Mike Telin
The Cleveland Museum of Art's VIVA! & Gala series continues this Friday, November 4, 2011 at 7:30 with a performance by Bassekou Kouyate and his band, Ngoni Ba.
Winner of the 2009 BBC3 World Music Award for Album of the Year, and 2011 Grammy nominee, Malian musician Bassekou Kouyate has become one of Africa’s most innovative bandleaders by combining traditional Malian music with American roots music. Kouyate and his seven-piece band, Ngoni Ba, have performed throughout the world from the stages of summer festivals to Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall.
Born into a family of famous griot musicians, Bassekou Kouyate was raised in the rich traditions of his local village, but is was not until an off chance meeting with the great blues musician Taj Mahal, that Kouyate realized that he already knew how to play the blues. In a 2010 feature with the World Music website RockPapersSicissors, Kouyate said “I didn’t even know who Taj Mahal was, and we had no language but music to communicate. He began playing and I joined in. When we stopped, Taj said: ‘So you already know the blues!’ but it was the first time I had ever heard blues. I was just playing my Ségu (home village) style, and it is the same music.” In the same feature he also states that he “continues to secure the survival of the ngoni music by continuing to push its limits, exploring uncharted territory, and speaking to the next generation of players”. (Click here to read the entire feature).
Due to language barriers we were unable to conduct a telephone interview with Mr. Kouyate, but he agreed to answer our questions by e-mail through his management.
Mike Telin: How has meeting Taj Mahal changed your music?
Bassekou Kouyate: Actually not that much. Our own music is still very close to our tradition and will always be. but meeting him was a huge experience. I was still only 18 and it was my first trip to the US traveling alone and then Taj takes me on stage and has me play before this huge audience. I was scared at first but fortunately people liked what I played and it was a lot of fun in the end.
MT: I understand that you were "born into a family of famous griot musicians”, and you were “steeped in the traditions of your local village, learning to sing its history." Can you tell me more about your family? Can you tell me more about what griot music is?
BK: My father was a ngoni player — a very great one. I learned to play from him. My mother, Yakare, is a singer. My first traveling experience was with her. We did a tour to Ivory Coast when I was 16. My dad was ill and someone had to play with my mother. Griots still are very important in Mali. On a Sunday you will see many weddings and many griots singing. The most important social steps in life be it birth, death, or marriage are accompanied by a griot. The griot speaks for you. He negotiates between families. That is why he knows all about the history of his patron's family.
MT: I understand that you see "the survival of the ngoni by continuing to push its limits, exploring uncharted territory, and speaking to the next generation of players". How are you doing this?
BK: If you look at my grandfather's ngoni, it had 3 strings. My father's had 4 and mine can have up to 9 strings. We modified the instrument to make it harmonically more flexible. Also I was the first ngoni player to play the ngoni standing up and to set up a ngoni quartet for which we created a bass ngoni, an instrument which had not existed before. That enables me to play with many different people from all over the world, not just in our tradition.
MT: I have read that the music of the griots has always been about building bridges between people: can you expand on this statement?
BK: Well, griots are the negotiators. It is their profession. They look for peace between different families.
Published on ClevelandClassical.com November 1, 2011.
Click here for a printable version of this article.